Audio News for May 14th to May 20th, 2006

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news for May 14th to May 20th, 2006.

Search begins for lost Spanish mission to Indians of Georgia


Our first story is from the United States, where amateur archeologists get an opportunity to search for the lost mission of Santa Isabel de Utinahica.  The mission was built in the 1600s for a lone friar who was sent to what is now the state of Georgia.  His task was to evangelize among the Indians on the edge of Spain's colonial empire.  Now Georgia’s Fernbank Museum and the state Historic Preservation office have teamed up to explore for traces of this early mission near the rural south Georgia town of Jacksonville.  According to Dennis Blanton, curator of Native American archaeology at Fernbank Museum, the Spanish mission to the Utinahica Indians was perched on the edge of the known world in this hemisphere.  A barefoot Franciscan was dropped alone into alien territory and given his marching orders to convert Indians and probably gather a certain amount of intelligence.  The research plans will give adults, high school, and college students an opportunity to take part in an excavation, and teachers who participate can get continuing education credits.  Professional archeologists will guide the amateurs.  The mission was named after the Utinahica Indians who lived in the area.  They were ancestors to the well-known Creek Indians.  Archeologists have already surveyed the area using remote sensing devices and plan to check it further with ground-penetrating radar.  Blanton said that Spanish artifacts have already been recovered at three sites, so those will be targeted first.  The program is expected to be offered again during the summer of 2007.  Most Georgians know about the role of the English settlers in Georgia, and Gen. James Oglethorpe, who brought a band of settlers in 1733, but they know very little about the role of the Spanish before them.  The Spanish had a mission on St. Catherines Island south of Savannah, Georgia, that was active from about 1575 to 1680.

Genetic analysis finds no link between mysterious Etruscans and modern Italians


A unique computer study from Stanford University in California has ruled out a genetic link between ancient Etruscans, the early inhabitants of central Italy, and the region's modern day residents.  Researchers used a novel statistical model to simulate demographic developments affecting the population of Tuscany over a 2,500-year time span.  The findings suggest that something either suddenly wiped out the Etruscans or the group represented a social elite that had little in common with the people who became the true ancestors of Tuscans.  According to anthropologist Joanna Mountain, archaeological remains of people in a particular location are simply assumed to be ancestral to whoever is living there now.  Statistical research advances the field of anthropological genetics by moving beyond simple storytelling about an ancient people to rigorous testing, using genetic data analysis, of a set of anthropological hypotheses.  The current research starts with information from extensive archaeological excavations into Etruscan culture, which existed in central Italy between the eighth and second centuries BC.  The origins of this culture are still controversial.  Some ancient historians, including Herodotus in about 430 BC, suggested that the Etruscans came to Italy from Asia Minor.  On the other hand, most modern archaeologists, along with ancient scholars such as Dionysius of Halicarnassos, who live about 100 BC, believe that the Etruscan civilization developed locally.   The distinctive culture known as Etruscan is thought to have its roots in the 10th-century BC Villanovan culture of uplands Italy, and was absorbed into the culture of Rome by the first century BC.  The Etruscans are the only pre-classical European population to date to be genetically analyzed. Two years ago, Italian geneticists extracted DNA from the bones of 27 people called Etruscans found in six different burial sites in Tuscany.  The data represent one of the best collections of ancient human DNA in existence.  The DNA of 49 people living in the region today was also sampled.  Although data from the two groups revealed several differences, the research could not establish how meaningful or significant these were. Experts then asked:  Do the present-day people look like they could be descendants of the Etruscan population?  The answer surprised Mountain.  She reported that no adjustments to the simulation parameters could make the modern people appear to have descended from the people in the Etruscan burial sites.

Ancient Chinese city rises to reveal life in the northwest desert


In northwest China, Chinese and French archaeologists claim to have discovered the ruins of an ancient city that disappeared in the desert more than 2,200 years ago.  The city is located in the center of the Taklamakan Desert, the second largest shifting desert in the world, in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.   The perimeter of the city walls was more than 3,000 feet long, with heights ranging from 9 to 33 feet.  Archaeologists found traces of city gates and passages at the south and eastern walls.  The walls were constructed from branches of poplar and tamarisk trees.  The joint team has worked at the site 5 times starting in 1993.  The estimated age of the city is based on carbon dating by French archaeologists on the city walls.  According to Idilis Abdurensule, a research fellow with the team, the city disappeared before the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 25), because deposits there contain no relics of the Western Han or any period after.  This is the oldest city ever discovered in Xinjiang.   Of more than 20 tombs discovered, three remained intact. One of the tombs contained the bodies of two males, sporting a hairstyle of pigtails and wigs, facing each other.  The two other intact tombs each contained a man and a woman.  French archaeologists said the corpses dated back 2,100 years and were Caucasian in their features.  The people wore woolen fabric and leather clothes.  One woman wore a red agate ornament around her neck, leather gloves, and ornaments made of shell.  Corinne Debaine Francfort, a French team member, said the findings show that these people were skilled in textiles, and used wool from sheep and camels to make clothes.   Archaeologists also found skeletons of animals, which show that animal husbandry, fishery and hunting were very important parts of the culture.  The residential areas were located in the northern part of the city.  Archaeologists found no trace of written materials, symbols or anything that could tell the name or history of the city.

Roman catacombs yield puzzling mass burial of more than 1,000


Our final story is from Italy, where archaeologists exploring one of Rome's oldest catacombs are mystified by orderly piles of more than 1,000 skeletons dressed in elegant togas.  The mass burial came to light as teams of historians worked their way through the complex network of underground burial chambers, stretching for miles under the city.  Experts say the tomb, dating to the first century AD, is the first known example of a mass burial from the catacombs.  The archaeologists are unable to explain why so many upper class Romans, who would normally have been cremated, were buried in the same spot, apparently at the same time.  Forensic tests are being performed to try to establish whether the Romans suffered violent deaths, or were victims of an undocumented epidemic or natural disaster.  Dozens of catacombs lie beneath the ancient city; some dating back 2,000 years.  Early Christians used some as burial places, and others as secret places of worship, in order to avoid persecution.  The Vatican's Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology is overseeing the dig.  Its chief inspector of catacombs, Raffaella Giuliani, stated that this is the earliest example of such a mass burial.  Usually two or three bodies at the most were put into holes dug out of the rock in the catacombs, but in this case, several rooms are filled with skeletons.  The skeletons were dressed in fine robes, many containing gold thread, and wrapped in sheets covered with lime, as was common in early Christian burials.  According to Giuliani, there was no obvious sign of violence as the cause of death.  The Vatican will officially present the discovery next month, along with officials from the University of Bordeaux, which has also been involved in the excavations.

That wraps up the news for this week!

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I'm Laura Kelley and I'll see you next week!